Image of God

Class notes for 3 January

Main points

Our authors were all interested in a theological story about where we came from and what we are like. In particular, they were interested in the idea that we are made in the image of God.

Robert South, and the authors in New Man magazine, give a particular understanding of this idea. Those who are made in the image of God have powers of understanding and action that are similar to God’s. Thus Adam had extraordinary knowledge of the world and morality prior to the fall.

We retain those abilities, but they are now hindered. Descartes, for instance, thought that avoiding error would lead to knowledge. Our fundamental rational nature is made for that, after all.

Hume, by contrast, thought that we couldn’t be rational creatures. If we were, we wouldn’t know or do much of anything.

How did Adam fall?

Having read the whole of Robert South’s Sermon of 9 November, 1662, I can say that he doesn’t really explain the Fall.

South, you will remember, had said that Adam’s mental (and physical) faculties were superior to our own. He was made in the image of god, after all. But if Adam was so great, why did he mess up in the spectacular way that he did?

South did take pains to insist that Adam was completely at liberty: God did not determine him to sin (p. 71). But why did Adam make the choice that he did? The most I can get is that “we were not born crooked, we learnt these windings and turning of the Serpent” (p. 72).

Theological ground rules

There are reasons why you’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics. It’s easy to hurt people’s feelings and it’s hard to get anywhere through polite discussion.

We aren’t going to talk about politics, but we’re going to be hip deep in religion. And some of us are believers. And none of us can prove that they’re wrong, despite what we think. Nor can any of us prove that we’re right.

At least, none of these proofs are going to succeed in our class sessions. Save it for the dorms!

So let’s be lighthearted about the intellectual puzzles but respectful of one another’s beliefs.

Why no overt atheists?

Why don’t we have much of a written record of atheism in the early modern period? Because the authors wouldn’t have lasted long. See David Denby’s review of James Buchan’s book Crowded with Genius for some examples that would have impressed David Hume.

Intelligent design

One thing that I love about the philosophers we’re reading is that they are trying to figure out something big: our place in the universe. The idea that we’re made in the image of God carries with it the assumption that we have a special place in the universe, distinct from the rest of the animal world. Specifically, it underwrites the thought that we have special capacities to understand the universe and the thought that we are especially capable of moral thought and action.

These ideas are still in play.

Consider the debate about intelligent design.

While the controversy over intelligent design is superficially about scientific facts, the real debate is more emotional. Evolution cuts to the heart of the belief that humans have a special place in creation. If all things in the living world exist solely because of evolutionary competition and natural selection, what room is left for the idea that humans are made in God’s image or for any morality beyond the naked requirements of survival? Beneath all the complex arguments of intelligent design advocates, Georgetown theologian John Haught agreed, ‘there lies a deeply human and passionately religious concern about whether the universe resides in the bosom of a loving, caring God or is instead perched over an abyss of ultimate meaninglessness.’

That’s from an article in the Washington Post, 5 February, 2006. It seems to me that the author could just as well have written “philosophical” instead of “emotional.”